The Managed Recession of Lake Okeechobee

Introduction:

In the early part of the 20th Century Floridians drained the wetlands between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades to the south to make way for farms, in the process disconnecting the natural plumbing that fed a steady flow of water to the Everglades. Today it costs tens to hundreds of millions of dollars a year to manage this artificial water works, and almost no one is happy with the results.

Lake Okeechobee is the second largest body of fresh water in the U.S. (only Lake Michigan is larger), with an average depth of nine feet. The lake provides drinking water for 6 million people and irrigation for $1.5 billion’s worth of agricultural products a year; and it has extensive sport fisheries and recreational value. But probably most important is the lake’s role in regulating water in south Florida. Flooding in the 1920s killed several thousand people, which led the Army Corps of Engineers to modify the lake with canals and levees for flood control. Today excess fresh water from Lake Okeechobee, water that once supported one of the biggest wetlands in the world, is sent by way of canals into the ocean.

The lake is now managed to keep its levels within bounds, but there are many competing interests. Farmers want to keep the lake high so they have enough water; the sport fishery wants the lake lower so that bass habitat isn’t drowned out; the people on the coast on the receiving end of the drainage canals don’t much like having their estuaries turn to freshwater every time there is a big release from the lake.

Lake Okeechobee faces three major environmental problems as well: it has excessive phosphorous loads, which increases its tendency towards oxygen depletion; it is undergoing a rapid spread of nuisance and exotic plants, which is hurting the fisheries and changing the lake in undesirable ways; and it is undergoing extremes of high and low water levels because it is being managed for multiple and often conflicting purposes. Management of the lake is controlled by a politically appointed board which does its best to meet its constituents' needs, but it recently was caught in a political crossfire worthy of a comic opera.

In the spring of 2002 the Governing Board of the South Florida Water Management District acting upon the best science available, decided to lower the lake levels to address some of the environmental problems that had developed. This was followed by an unexpected and severe drought, which lowered the lake to record low levels and which set most of the stakeholders in the region at each other’s throats.

We spoke with Alan Steinman about his experiences as the recent director of the Lake Okeechobee restoration program.

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